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Strong start in Steel City

Mike Gilloon | Monday, September 5, 2005

PITTSBURGH – Just after midnight on Sunday, Dave Wannstedt emerged from Heinz Field with his tie undone, rubbing his brow – a first-year head coach and Pittsburgh alum trying to figure out what had just happened.

A game intended as the celebration of a head coach’s return to his alma mater went terribly wrong – for Wannstedt, at least.

Notre Dame scored five first-half touchdowns to roll over No. 23/25 Pittsburgh Saturday night, 42-21, as Notre Dame graduate Charlie Weis earned his first win as Irish head coach.

Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn ran an efficient pro-style offense, completing 14-of-16 passes for 197 yards in the first half to give the Irish a 35-13 cushion at the break.

“To be honest with you, I wasn’t trying to look at the scoreboard much,” Quinn said. “I just wanted to go out there and keep pushing, keep driving everyone. We just happened to have a great night.”

Darius Walker keyed the Irish offensive explosion, hauling in an opening-drive screen pass from Quinn and running 51 yards down the sideline for Notre Dame’s first touchdown.

Pittsburgh opened the scoring and appeared on the right track in Wannstedt’s debut when quarterback Tyler Palko hooked up with all-Big East wide receiver Greg Lee for a 38-yard touchdown pass to cap an eight-play, 73-yard opening drive.

But the Notre Dame defense adjusted.

An Irish secondary that ranked No. 116 in the nation against the pass last season did not allow Lee to catch another ball until 7:59 remained in the third quarter, with the Irish ahead 42-13.

“The defense, after they got their feet wet … played pretty well,” Weis said.

And just as the Pittsburgh offense stalled, Notre Dame accelerated behind Weis’ playcalling that exposed the weaknesses in the Panthers’ defense. Pittsburgh returned three starters from last season in the secondary, but the departure of defensive tackles Vince Crochunis and Dan Stephens was evident as the Irish ran for 275 yards.

“I have as much respect [as] anyone for Pittsburgh,” Weis said. “But they had a bunch of uncertainties in their front seven. The secondary really wasn’t that much of a problem to me because everything was playing from tight end to tight end.”

Down 10-7 after a 49-yard Josh Cummings field goal for Pitt with 1:40 remaining in the first quarter, the Irish took over at their own 35. Quinn hit wide receiver Rhema McKnight in stride for 27 yards after a fake reverse, and Walker completed the drive seven plays later – freezing Pitt cornerback Josh Lay with a stutter step and strolling into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown run.

The Irish then forced a Panther punt, and Tom Zbikowski’s return put the Irish again at their own 35. Five minutes later, Notre Dame had scored two touchdowns. The first was courtesy of fullback Rashon Powers-Neal’s one-yard burst over the goal line.

The second was a diving, acrobatic 19-yard reception by receiver Jeff Samardzija.

Two Notre Dame penalties spotted Pittsburgh 29 yards on their ensuing possession and set up Cummings’ 23-yard field goal to make the score 28-13.

But Quinn hit four different players – Samardzija, Powers-Neal, McKnight and Maurice Stovall – on the next drive to go 4-for-4 with 52 yards. Powers-Neal then scored his second touchdown of the night – darting up the middle untouched for a 9-yard score – to put the Irish up 35-13 and the game out of reach.

Powers-Neal tallied his third touchdown of the game on Notre Dame’s first possession of the third quarter.

The score came at the end of what Weis called a “sloppy” 20-play, 80-yard drive marked by three Irish penalties, a fumble by tight end John Carlson recovered by Quinn and two time outs.

Nevertheless, Powers-Neal was surprised and excited by his play.

“I expected to win but I didn’t expect myself personally to have this much success,” Powers-Neal said. “I’m going to enjoy it tonight then get back to work tomorrow.”

Weis believed the game was a solid beginning to the season but there were problems.

“We didn’t play a full 60 minutes,” Weis said. “We had 10 penalties. You can’t win close games with 10 penalties.”

Pittsburgh finished the scoring in the fourth quarter, using running back Raymond Kirkley’s 51-yard scamper to set up Palko’s 4-yard touchdown run on fourth and goal. Panthers fullback Tim Murphy ran over left tackle to convert the two-point conversion.